Carmen Aguirre on Canadian foreign policy and the 50th anniversary of the coup in Chile

Published by Brent Patterson on

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Photo of Carmen Aguirre by Tim Fraser/The Globe and Mail.

Carmen Aguirre’s family fled Chile after the coup in 1973 when she was five years old, eventually making their way to Vancouver.

In 1979, Carmen, her younger sister Ale, her mother Mami and Canadian activist step-father Bob Everton returned to Chile to join the Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionaria – MIR, known in English as the Movement of the Revolutionary Left.

She moved back to Canada after more than ten years in the resistance.

This week she wrote in The Globe and Mail:

Sept. 11 marks the 50th anniversary of the coup in Chile. Salvador Allende, the democratically elected socialist president, was overthrown by the U.S.-backed general, Augusto Pinochet.

I was five years old at the time. Three months later, my family went into exile, ending up in Vancouver. We thought we’d be here for six months, at which point a transitional government would be installed, and we would return to Chile. The dictatorship lasted for 17 years.

Allende’s peaceful road to socialism through the Popular Unity government included the nationalization of Chuquicamata (the world’s biggest copper mine), agrarian reform, returning land to the indigenous Mapuche people, and literacy campaigns.

When Allende nationalized the country’s resources, the United States implemented sanctions. ‘Make the economy scream,’ U.S. president Richard Nixon infamously said. Canada, under Pierre Trudeau, participated, suspending bilateral assistance, and voting to cut off all money Chile received from the International Monetary Fund; Canadian mining corporation Noranda had been part owner of the nationalized Chuquicamata copper mine. Canadian banks left the country.

Pierre Trudeau expressed diplomatic support for Mr. Pinochet. Within a month of the coup, Canada voted for Inter-American Development Bank loans to Chile, and endorsed International Monetary Fund loans. By 1978, Canadian banks had given 20 loans to Chile and direct investments by Canadian companies were at almost $1-billion. Although Mr. Pinochet kept Chile’s three largest copper mines in state hands, using some of their earnings to fund his military, Noranda reclaimed its 49-per-cent share in its subsidiary Chile Canadian Mines.

Given all of this, why and how did Canada give asylum to almost 7,000 refugees fleeing the dictatorship?

Leftists across Canada were appalled by their government’s response to the ultra-right-wing fascist coup, demanding that doors be opened to Chilean refugees. They rallied, occupied government offices and wrote letters until, in 1974, Canada agreed to offer asylum to Chileans.

In order to be accepted as a Chilean asylum seeker, you agreed to renounce your leftist political activity in Canada. Almost no one followed that directive.

Her full article can be read at Allende’s dream, Pinochet’s coup and Chile’s present (The Globe and Mail, September 8, 2023).

You can also read more about her experiences in her book Something Fierce: Memoirs of a Revolutionary Daughter (April 2011) as well as in the article A childhood on the run (The Guardian, November 2011).

To register for the webinar noted below, click here.

Further reading: Remembering Canada’s support for the right wing coup in Chile (Yves Engler, September 2018).

Also, the documentary Nae Pasaran tells the story of Bob, Robert, Stuart and John, workers at a Rolls Royce plant in Scotland, who refused to service the engines of Chilean Air Force Hunter Hawker fighter jets that had been used in the coup.

Matthew Behrens has written that 3,000 people rallied in Ottawa against the AMRX ‘89 weapons show (now called CANSEC) that facilitated the sale of weapons to Chile.

On May 18, 1999, the group Kissinger out of Canada attempted a citizens’ arrest of former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger – for crimes against humanity and his role in the 1973 coup – at the Sheraton Centre hotel in downtown Toronto.

The New York Times reported in November 2019 that Chilean security forces were implicated in 6 deaths, arrested 6,300 people, and that there were 2,400 hospitalizations of protesters, including at least 285 people who suffered eye trauma, during the anti-austerity protests against Chilean President Sebastián Piñera. In 2019-2020, Canada exported $5.6 million of “military goods” to Chile.

There will also be a commemorative gathering in Ottawa. More on that here.

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